Steady leadership helps The Belden Brick Co. to 133 years in business


The Belden Brick Co. is the sixth largest manufacturer of bricks in the U.S. by production volume and the country’s largest family-owned-and-managed brick company. With a 133-year history, it’s also one of the oldest companies in Stark County and employs the fifth generation of Beldens.

“Our motto is that we’re the standard of comparison since 1885,” says CEO Robert F. Belden. “We try to live up to that every day to make sure that we’re providing the very best product and the very best service we can.”

Since its inception, the company has survived massive fluctuations in market conditions that have reshaped the competitive landscape. Many families in the brick-making industry sold their companies. Other than Acme Brick, owned by Berkshire Hathaway and one of the biggest players in the field, others in the industry are, for the most part, owned by foreign entities. Because of this, growth, in terms of acquisitions, is not easy.

Nonetheless, Robert says the company is opportunistic in its approach to acquisitions, and has explored every brick operation that has been for sale for the past 35 years. It bought Redland Brick Co. and its three locations outside of Pittsburgh, in Connecticut and Maryland, in 1996; and in 2011, acquired the assets of Lawrenceville Brick, a Virginia-based company, which it folded into the Redland entity.

Feeling the impact

One market ripple still being felt in the company was caused by the recent recession. Belden’s product mix had typically been around 55 percent nonresidential and 35 percent residential. But as the effects of the recession reverberated through the market, Belden’s mix shifted to 80 percent nonresidential as the rate of new residences being built collapsed.

Leading by example eliminates ambiguity

One lesson I learned early in my career: there’s no ambiguity when you lead by example. If there’s a difficult assignment, volunteer for it. If there’s a deal to be done and it requires working over the weekend, roll up your sleeves and work with your team to make it happen. If you’re committed to developing a diverse workforce, hire, coach and build a pipeline of people with diverse backgrounds, experience and perspectives.

During the course of my nearly 25 year career in banking, with close to 20 of those years at U.S. Bank, I’ve held a range of increasingly senior positions across multiple businesses, including leveraged finance and corporate banking for the energy, media and communications, and technology sectors. When I look back, it’s clear how my own aspirations and opportunities have been shaped by watching those who have come before me. Those role models — smart, hard-working and successful — have played an important part (sometimes unspoken) in encouraging me to lead and accept new challenges.

Ongoing career development has always been important to me. In a world defined by accelerating economic change, it’s more important than ever to stay a step ahead. For me, this began when I was chosen to participate in a training program that consisted of five six-month rotations in different locations around the world. I was not only exposed to different business lines, but every stop involved immersion in a new culture, a new manager and new colleagues. This opportunity helped me develop not only a broader perspective on the financing needs of diverse clients, but also a deep appreciation for some of the more underappreciated aspects of leadership, such as building consensus and the value of protocol.

My time overseas helped me further appreciate that every culture has its own way of getting things done. In Japan, there is an indirectness to communications that can be challenging to an American. One interesting example: after arriving in the country and settling in, I asked my colleagues whether I could scale nearby Mt. Fuji. My queries were mostly deflected. Over time, I came to learn that my co-workers were too polite to tell me that they didn’t think I could do it (I guess they didn’t see me when I was helicoptering back and forth to an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in a driving rain storm).

The key takeaway for me: there’s more than one way to get an idea across. Back in the U.S., we come from many places, cultures and backgrounds, and bring a wealth of different skills and experiences to our jobs. As such, it’s important to encourage contributions from all perspectives and to create a framework that allows for cooperation across departments, seniority lines and businesses to get things done.

From the start of my career, I’ve been fortunate to have women around me who served as a very visible reminder of what was possible. In college, it was the president of the university. Here at the bank, there are women leaders right up to the vice chairman level, including Leslie Godridge, co-head of Wholesale Banking, of which I am a part. In our day-to-day work with technology companies, we’re starting to see more women in leadership roles as well. Seeing them there, leading by example, is a powerful motivator to all of us, especially the next generation.

When I took on the role as head of the Technology Banking Division for U.S. Bank, I was again charged with building a diverse team and fostering a culture that would allow that team to excel. Our group competes in a dynamic marketplace, providing lending and other financial services to a broad array of technology companies. Moving fast is paramount, and teamwork is critical.

A paradox of successful team building is that it inevitably begins with the individual — identifying strengths and creating roles that give team members the opportunity to have their unique abilities recognized, and to realize their potential. You also need to know when to ask more from the team, and then give them the encouragement to leverage those abilities and make that extra reach at critical times.

A recent example of this is when my team received a call from a major client late on a Friday afternoon — a request for a substantial loan. The entire team worked together through the night and we were ultimately able to approve the loan by Saturday afternoon. This extra effort led to an expanded relationship with an important client.

A key takeaway from this: the need to be ready to act when a client makes an “out of the box” request and to find a way to say yes. To make that happen, you need to have the structure in place ahead of time. As a leader, it’s my role to help the team by communicating with internal stakeholders about the needs of current and prospective clients, often and well in advance, so that they can be prepared to make an informed decision quickly. And, when the clock strikes midnight on a Friday night and the client needs a response by Saturday, you as a leader can’t phone it in — you have to be there.

Gail Scannell is National Technology Banking Division Manager and Senior Vice President at U.S. Bank in St. Louis.

The secret is to never stop

The theme of this month’s magazine is leadership. While you could argue that every month we focus on leadership, I wanted to highlight different sectors that are leading change. From health care, technology and education to sports, economic development and business, it’s a good mix.

As Nationwide Children’s Hospital pushes the frontiers of genomics, Air Force One makes the bold move to do away with sales commissions and Capital University ponders how the next generation can be trained to collaborate. I hope you are inspired.
Always searching

I talk to CEOs every month about how they lead their companies. While some general principles stay the same, I hear something different from everyone I talk to. For some, it’s all about the relationships. For others, it’s about having the vision and not being afraid to act on it.

But the best business leaders are always trying to learn, improve, grow and find new ways of doing things. I don’t think you ever find all the answers; it’s more important to keep looking.

Girls definitely allowed

Women in business is something I enjoy advocating for, and the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, featured in this month’s magazine, has gained a reputation for hosting women’s events. Part of that has to do with having a female executive director, Linda Shetina Logan, which is unusual in her industry.

Logan, a passionate Cleveland Indians fan who didn’t have Title IX in high school, believes she has the best job in the world — one where she gets paid to go to a baseball game.

Columbus also has a focus on women and girls that translates over to sports.

“If you think about our community, our chief of police is a woman, the head of our airport is a woman. We have all these women that naturally are in leadership roles here. It’s not just in name only, but we feel like we walk the talk,” Logan says.

The Sports Commission even started an event, the Women’s Sports Report. The breakfast, which was held in February, honors the athletic successes and achievements — both on the playing field and off — of women and girls in Central Ohio.

HR departments can play a key role in building a strong culture

Meredith J. Guyot was on the road attending a business meeting 30 years ago when she had a profound experience at the hotel bar. She was given a coaster that she still owns to this day with the following quote scrawled across it.

“People may doubt what you say, but they always believe what you do,” reads the quote most commonly attributed to Lewis Cass, an American military officer, politician and statesman in the early 1800s.

The coaster sits next to Guyot’s phone and she looks it on a daily basis.

“That is my brand,” says Guyot, director of human resources and operations at Nesco Resource. “All of us as individuals should have a brand. What do you stand for? It doesn’t have to be a mission statement. It doesn’t have to be a vision. It’s a way to let people know who you are, what you believe and how you approach your life and your work.”

HR departments play a key role in helping businesses build and maintain a strong culture. When employees believe that their company will treat them fairly, it produces loyalty and trust that should lead to happier employees and increased productivity.

Smart Business spoke with Guyot about how to build trust between management and employees in your company.

What are some common attributes to a strong HR department?

Consistency is a good place to start. When employees understand your rationale for making decisions, it eliminates a lot of stress. If you have to make a decision that veers from your typical approach to such matters, the key is to be able to provide a rationale that explains the decision. You don’t want to leave people guessing why you decided to do this or that as it creates unease and can easily distract employees from their work.

Along these lines, transparency is another fundamental trait of companies with a strong culture and an effective HR team. Engage your team in conversation and when possible, incorporate their feedback into your decision-making process. If you have a company meeting coming up, reach out to employees and ask them what they would like the meeting to cover. What do your employees want to learn? What could you help them with that would make it easier for them to do their jobs? When people trust you have their best interests at heart, they will feel empowered and engaged.

What can leaders do who are uncomfortable engaging in casual conversations?

If you aren’t good at small talk and conversing with your employees about things outside of their work, it’s best to find someone who does have that skill to handle that role. On the surface, it may not seem that important to be able to talk to your team about what’s going on in their lives. But it can be of great benefit when an unexpected situation develops.

At our company, we had a young woman whose spouse passed away rather unexpectedly. The couple had small children and he was the benefit carrier for his family, so she was going to have to pick up our benefits. The CEO wouldn’t know that. But as the head of HR, I brought it to his attention and the company did something to ease the burden for her. We did it because it was the right thing to do. It’s not going to make or break the company, but it sends a message about how we do things. Companies are not made up of ‘people,’ they are made up of individuals. These individuals are your customers, so be very aware of their needs.

What other tips can help a company build rapport with its employees?

Talk to each other. Sounds easy. Should someone send you an email that is very in-depth, pick up the phone. Discuss the issue together and ask for their thoughts. Often they have the right solution, but only want it to be verified. By providing this support, you also deliver empowerment. Now send the email, thank them for the discussion and reiterate that their decision was the right one. As our role is strongly that of adviser, adding the word ‘trusted’ as an adjective is what separates the HR role from one who, as an example, manages a benefit platform, to one who builds a platform that best supports the individuals’ needs and company’s vision. Know your HR product. Keep abreast of developing laws and regulations. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open to all levels of your organization.

Insights Workforce Management is brought to you by Nesco Resource

Don’t (let them see you) worry. Be happy!

Gratitude creates happiness. It is a wonderful habit to wake up and first thing, as a matter of habit, appreciate life, friends, colleagues, family and other loved ones. I personally love to start the day by doing something good for somebody: A charitable donation, some time with a mentee, a positive comment to somebody, a personal card. It has become a habit. More than anything, it makes me feel privileged to be able to do things for others.

Happiness is contagious. The employee getting a positive comment who then becomes happy and passes it on to her kid who then is nice to the school janitor. As a CEO with a wide reach across a community, my happiness can impact thousands of lives.

It has made me wonder how happiness among senior leaders may influence company culture and whether organizations with happy leadership have better results and a more positive culture.

Living in fear

In supply chain, where risk management has become important, we see serious risk avoidance. Let’s face it: Many companies have a punitive culture where transgressions and missteps are dealt with harshly. Employees avoid what may be a career-ending step.

While risk avoidance can be good, it can be – and often is – detrimental to organizations when it is pervasive. When decisions drag out infinitely because nobody dares make a decision, the organization is working on inertia. In the meantime, more nimble competitors are gaining market share. Risk avoidance can cause employees to refrain from voicing alternative points of view, bringing up new ideas or bringing problems to management’s attention. It creates a fake illusion of consensus, it kills innovation and it kills employee motivation.

Companies with high degrees of risk avoidance make more strategic and tactical errors. Their focus tends to be on the day-to-day and often miniscule problems.

A positive culture supports collaboration, not just internally but also with external partners. It is more likely to foster innovation and creativity. It is related to employee satisfaction and longevity. All of these are areas that correlate to success and profitability.

Think before you speak

Ask business leaders, and they all want to create a positive culture. However, it takes focus to stay the course. Leaders can undo years of positive culture, when they overreact on isolated incidents, side-track dissenters, or publicly discuss failures. Leading often means shouldering fear. Everyone has the fear of failure. It is built into our DNA, and it worked well for our ancestors’ survival. For leaders, failure can be very public. Yet, being a leader is also a privilege, and with that privilege comes the obligation of shouldering the fear without letting fear overwhelm. Only weak leaders don’t recognize the fear. Great leaders figure out how to translate the fear into a positive team culture, placing the focus on results and what it takes to get there. Nobody wants to go through the business jungle with a skittish leader.

Hannah Kain is founder, President and CEO of ALOM, a leading global supply chain company headquartered in Fremont, California.

Changing demographics must be reflected at leadership levels

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about leadership transition in Greater Akron. Baby boomers are retiring in huge numbers, their successors at the helm of many companies and institutions of importance to Greater Akron unknown. How will we survive?

The retort is that we’ve been through this before and it will turn out just fine. In some ways, it’s tempting to believe that this is the same old story. But for a few reasons, I’d suggest that this time it’s different.

Increasing diversity

An emphasis in the current leadership transition conversation is on how well our community is doing in cultivating diverse leadership across gender, race and age. Whether we see it or not, we are in the midst of a dramatic demographic shift.

A new book by William Frey entitled, “Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America,” shows that today’s youth are much more racially diverse than their predominantly white predecessors. Summit County’s data mirrors the trend. Its residents age 80 and over are 89.9 percent white. Among our youngest citizens (ages infant to 4), however, just 68 percent are white. Working backwards from the oldest age group, each gets increasingly more diverse and less white.

We must recognize that the composition of our citizenry is changing. If I’m a company that seeks to understand and connect with my customer base, diversity in my leadership team enables that deep understanding. If I’m a company that seeks to attract the best and the brightest talent to my workforce, diversity in my leadership team signals to diverse talent that they can aspire to greatness and leadership here. In short, if I’m a company that seeks to remain relevant in a changing world, diversity in my leadership team reflects that world.

GAR Foundation has focused on diversity within our community’s nonprofit sector. Diverse leadership of civic institutions makes sense for the same reasons it makes sense for business. Nonprofits provide a means for citizens to invest in their community. We talk with our grantees about the diversity on their boards because the organization’s decisions can only benefit from diverse perspectives in its boardroom. Further, individuals who engage with their community through nonprofit boards are more likely to “stick” in this community and invest in a variety of ways.

Embracing new leadership

Recent research on the diversity of local nonprofit boards conducted by BVU: The Center for Nonprofit Excellence, shows that we have work to do. The boards of Akron’s nonprofit institutions — especially its largest institutions — are still much whiter, more male and older than the population. But the conversation has started in a big way and nonprofits are working hard to embrace new leaders.

While that is good news, it won’t amount to much unless the goal of diverse leadership is embraced solidly by the private sector as well. Business drives the success of Greater Akron. While the public and nonprofit sectors play important roles, business is what determines our future prosperity.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Summit and adjacent counties in the areas of education, arts and arts education, health and social services, and civic and nonprofit enhancement.

To survive tough times, it takes going deep and going long

Are you going through tough times? It may be time for some reflection to refocus toward your goals.

For the prisoners of war in the Vietnam War, facing serious trials became a way of life. In that bleak existence locked up and isolated in a communist prison camp for five, six, seven and even eight years, every day had its challenges. Yet the POWs emerged stronger, becoming successful military leaders, congressmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, businessmen and even a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. They learned to treasure the trials of their hardship.

Everyone faces hardships and disappointments, and it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials. Here are some tips to help you secure the true gold found in trials.

Go deep — find meaning and make changes

Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values. In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. We have the opportunity to find meaning in our suffering and meaning is a treasure worth finding.

The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors. Personal growth is the only path to genuine leadership development.

Go long — gain wisdom and experience

Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational; making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership.

On the other hand, leaders devoid of crucible experiences are likely to be overly confident about their ideas and surprisingly more susceptible to fears. Difficult trials generate strong emotional memories that stay with us longer and are more easily accessed — gold that we don’t have to search so hard to find.

Don’t go it alone

When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone — you need supporters in your corner — people who care about you and have your back. They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging.

Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference. We must stay connected to be resilient and bounce back from trials.

Next steps

More than likely, you have already passed through some tough times in your life. It may be helpful to look back and see the treasure that you gained from those past challenges. What was the meaning you gained through those trials? What did you learn about yourself that may be helpful now? What changes did you make then? Who walked with you?

You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them. If you follow these tips, someday, looking back, you will see enormous value in your trials.

Lee Ellis
Leadership Freedom® LLC

Lee is a nationally recognized consultant, presenter and retired U.S. Air Force colonel. He shares his expertise in the areas of leadership, team building and human performance. His latest award-winning book about his Vietnam prisoner of war experience is entitled “Leading with Honor®: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”

The secret to leadership — breaking habitual patterns, controlling emotional states come with self-management 

What if you knew the secret of being a great leader and living a happier life? It’s right in front of you and asking if you would invest the time and effort needed to change.

That secret is self-management, and it involves a two-step process:

  • First, you need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself, including your habitual patterns of feeling, thinking and reacting.
  • Second, you need to develop the skill to manage your emotional states that arise from those patterns so they don’t overwhelm and control you.

Obviously, you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. There are countless assessments and personality tests that you can use to help you understand yourself. My preferred tool is the Enneagram, which is a deep and dynamic map of the ego. There are other tools available. It’s important for you to find one that resonates with you.

Managing yourself

Learning to manage yourself starts with self-observation, a process of neutrally and compassionately watching yourself. It allows you to recognize when a habitual pattern and consequent reaction is presenting itself in the current moment. With this awareness, you can make a choice. How do I want to behave and feel now? Without this awareness, your emotions will control you, and they can potentially damage your business and personal relationships.

Many of the CEOs and senior executives with whom I work frequently say, “Take the emotions out of it!” Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong approach. Each attempt to deny and control your own emotions disconnects you from your heart and separates you from others. Relying solely on thinking and (trying to) deny your emotions only intensifies them until they can no longer be contained. An intense reaction to release all of that pent-up emotion becomes inevitable.

Most of our conscious brain is focused outside of ourselves. We make plans for the future, or we try to persuade others to change so that we may feel better. That does not, however, help us manage ourselves. Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is to become aware of our own inner experience and learn to allow it.

Remember RAIN

Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, describes a process she calls RAIN to manage our emotional states:

  • Recognize what is happening.
  • Allow this situation to be just as it is.
  • Investigate your inner experience with kindness.
  • Non-identification is the result of applying the first three steps; fully living in the present.

Brach states that over time, “RAIN directly deconditions the habitual ways in which you resist your moment-to-moment experience” and helps to make these patterns less compulsive. By responding differently, you can create new neuron connections, emotional patterns and gradually change your problem behavior.

If you truly want to change, then you must relax your current patterns of thinking, feeling and reacting. Self-awareness and self-observation, combined with acknowledging and releasing emotions, are your tools to become an emotionally mature person and, as a result, a better and happier leader.
Cheryl B. McMillan is the chair of Vistage International for Northeast Ohio, a leading international organizations for CEOs, presidents, business owners and senior executives.

Catching more flies with honey: a timeless lesson from our mothers that’s worth repeating

Business executives and managers — young and old, novice or experienced — need to pause periodically and reflect on what their mothers told them when they were young: “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

This seems obvious, but the real lesson to remember is that a good leader can still act like a leader — projecting confidence, firmness and pragmatism — without taking on the persona of a perpetually cold-hearted curmudgeon when making requests or giving orders.

Much of the problem emanates from bad habits and the false sense that if a leader is empathetic, pleasant and polite, he or she just won’t be taken seriously. The media perpetuates this hard-as-nails image when movers and shakers are bestowed graphic nicknames such as “Neutron Jack” or “Chainsaw Al,” which are mild compared to some even more pugnacious handles.

New managers are often the worst offenders. They tend to try to compensate for their youth and inexperience by dispatching orders and simple requests with staccato inflections and a scowl. The common perception is the fiercer one looks, the more determined they are, and what they’re communicating is tantamount to a matter of life or death.

Another contributing factor is the insecurity of leaders who think that if they appear too human, subordinates will take advantage of them. That is far from the truth and the best antidote is to back up orders with the reasons why they make sense.

Try these techniques and learn for yourself: The next time you have to deliver a directive that will not be well received, do so in a softer tone than the one to which subordinates are accustomed. In doing so, intersperse the word “please” a few times and try smiling, not a big know-it-all-grin or smirk, just a low-key upturn of the mouth. Explain what you want done in a conversational manner and conclude with a “thank you.” Remember, a leader doesn’t need to be a drill sergeant.

Here is another: When something isn’t completed correctly and you’re compelled to intervene, do so without raising your voice or in a smug tone.

I like these methods because, as an ancillary benefit, when used appropriately, they’re contagious. Additionally, the recipient will listen more closely to your rationale, be less defensive and may even empathize with you. Your subordinate won’t feel threatened and will more readily recognize the error of their ways and correct them with greater vigor.

Adopting an even keel style doesn’t mean one must become a spineless wimp. Instead, taking it down a notch typically can accomplish more versus the stereotypical “I’m the boss and don’t you forget it” form of communication.

And when it comes time to make a strong point with a stern delivery, it will be taken very, very seriously because it won’t be you behaving like the old you.

Never forget mother knows best, and honey beats vinegar every time.

By following these leadership steps, you’ll see positive effects in your company

I recently led a leadership development and team-building program for an international food distribution company, and I was reminded yet again of the importance of team camaraderie. Despite their geographic distance as a diverse global team, I was surprised by their cohesion and mutual trust. This experience helped me to assess why the concept of team camaraderie is so important to increasing the bottom line.

The hallmarks of camaraderie
The positive feelings with this client took me back to the days when I had experienced this type of camaraderie in the military. We were diligently competitive and gave each other straightforward feedback in mission debriefs. To an outsider, it might appear that we were hard on each other, but we were actually very close. Our bonds of friendship and trust were strong, and we enjoyed socializing, having fun hanging out and talking about our work and sharing our lives together.
Reflecting back over the years, I’ve noticed that camaraderie is usually present in high-performing teams that endure over a long period of time. What are some of the hallmarks that we can learn from such teams?
• Time — They have taken the time and energy to build understanding, acceptance and respect so that individuals feel connected and secure.
• Results — Because they feel belonging, team members don’t want to let others down. They strive for excellence in accomplishing the mission (getting results).
• Communication — Healthier teams have more frequent and more effective communication. They pick up the phone and call each other to quickly solve problems.
• Team focus — Healthy teams focus on team results and not just individual effort. Team members help each other succeed and hold each other accountable.

Leadership steps
We’ve been talking about the team, but it all starts with the leader. To have this kind of positive energy flowing from human connections, the leader must take the lead:
• Clarify the culture and set the climate. Alignment built around mission, vision and values is crucial, as is your commitment to be both leader and member of the team.
• Create opportunities and expectations for people to build bonds. Social time outside of work is clearly the best way to get to know each other.
• Connect with each person. Regardless of whether the leader is an introvert or an extrovert, he or she has to engage by connecting with each person making them feel important and welcome. This doesn’t mean that the leader has to be the life of the party. Typically I find more leaders that are introverts than extroverts, but the good ones look to the outgoing, social folks to provide the fun and energy that becomes contagious to the group.

As a leader, what are you doing to promote this powerful bond among your people? Building strong team camaraderie will have long-lasting positive effects on your organization.

Lee Ellis is president of Leadership Freedom® LLC. He was a Vietnam War POW in various prisons in the Hanoi area for over five years. As a military officer, his experiences as a POW piqued his interest in leadership performance in difficult situations.